In one of my favorite episodes of the 1990s British comedy Absolutely Fabulous, Patsy considers the dead body of Edina Monsoon’s father laid out in the living room of the Eddie’s Holland Park manse and said, “Yeah, but is it ART, Eddie?”
When one considers performance pieces like Blue Man Group, it’s hard to categorize exactly what the hell is going on for the purposes of writing a typical theatre review. That’s because there’s not much typical about the show unfolding through Sunday at TPAC’s Jackson Hall. But then again, not much about performance art / theatre hybrids from the late 1980s through the mid-1990s can be defined as typical. Whether percussive works like STOMP and Blue Man Group or even more wild and wooly pieces by the Rivington School, there was once a New York that churned with art and creation in the East Village and Alphabet City.
For those like me who walk into the show familiar with, if uninitiated into the world of Blue Man, I can give my best stab at distilling the thing for you. Imagine if the Talking Heads were rendered nonverbal, painted ultramarine blue, and performing percussion instruments, both improvised and traditional, inside a Nam June Paik video art installation.
There are four performers listed in the Playbill: Meridian, Mike Brown, Steven Wendt, and Adam Zuick. It’s not possible to know who your Blue Men are in a given performance, but they all appear to be well-versed in a strange physical language drawn from silent film, Absurdist theatre, and the Marx Brothers. At some moments, it’s like an Abbott and Costello routine is happening with the sound off. Add into the mix two musicians playing percussion and electric guitar and a tribe of stagehands and you have the company.
Oh yeah… and then there’s the audience members who are drawn (or dragged) into the proceedings. The friend who accompanied me saw the show in Las Vegas eight years ago knew what was coming when a row of five bar stools were placed onstage. And the woman who was brought onstage as part of that segment seemed like she was hoping a trap might open beneath her seat, allowing her to vanish. No such luck there. Consider it a fair warning to you if you’re sitting in the first five rows, especially if your seat is near the edges of the house.
There is an interesting perplexity to be found in the schtick of the Blue Man performance. At times, the native comfort with which the Blues take to the technology and percussion setups surrounding them on three sides stands in direct contrast with the discomfort and pseudo-amazement in their interactions with the humans they bring onstage and make contact with in the audience. I’m sure there’s some philosophical gobbledygook I could attach to this, but I’ll let that sail past without taking a swing.
What began three decades back as protest and performance soldiers on as a money-making machine powered, since 2017, by Cirque du Soleil. At the very core of Blue Man is a communicative power that goes beyond words. This is a show that began as a protest piece against the Yuppie excesses of the 1980s and ended up being a mainstay in the center ring of the most American of circuses, Las Vegas. On one hand, that’s the American dream, baby… rags to riches. On the other, well, they had a term back in the grunge era…
Thirty years on, Blue Man Group still searches for connection in an isolating age. Oh wait, that was RENT, another show about this era, this moment and place in New York in the 1980s. As you, dear reader, stare aimlessly into your phone or computer screen reading this review, ask yourself if you’re more or less connected than you were years ago. This isn’t some Boomer screed against tech. I’m a Xennial, for heaven’s sake. But if you’re feeling lonely this Valentine’s Day morning, maybe do as the Blue Men do and take T. Rex’s advice: “Get it on / Bang a Gong / Get it on.” It certainly works for the boys in blue.
Go forth and improvise thineself a percussive instrument. You might end up getting hauled off to the psych ward, but it might also end up getting you a date. Así, asá.
The Blue Man Group continues on around America, but more specifically at TPAC through Sunday, February 16th. Tickets are available at the TPAC Box Office and online.
Read more by Out & About’s Will here.